Fall of Jerusalem

The Brexit saga continues! As I write, the House of Commons has just passed the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, second reading, but they subsequently voted against the Government’s proposed timetable. Many people ask, can the Prime Minister be trusted. Is his promise that the UK will leave the EU on 31st October really going to happen? Currently no one knows – I suspect that includes the prime minister himself!

This contrasts sharply with promises that the God of the Universe makes. No matter how unlikely or how much we doubt his promises, his word never fails. For some people there is a temptation to alter the meaning of God’s words to fit preconceived notions: this is an expression of doubt not faith and history proves the doubters wrong! We see in this final chapter of Jeremiah, the fulfilment of God’s word in the fall of Jerusalem, the fate of Zedekiah, the survival of the exiles and the continuity of the promised dynastic line from king David. God keeps his promises! Never doubt this, never twist his promises to suit your preconceived ideas and always have faith – not blind faith, but faith in a person who is demonstrably and consistently reliable.  

1. The rule of King Zedekiah

The legitimate heir to the throne in Jerusalem fell to the eldest son of the eldest son. Josiah’s eldest son was Jehoiakim and Jehoiakim’s eldest son was Jehoiachin. It was however Zedekiah (Jehoiakim’s younger brother) who was put on the throne by the Babylonians. Thus, it seems that he was a legitimate member of the royal family to sit on the throne in Jerusalem. Neither was he morally fit, we read in verse 2 that  ‘He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, just as Jehoiakim had done.’ Zedekiah however, certainly knew what he ought to do and was almost persuaded to do it! Back in Jeremiah 38, you may recall that Zedekiah approached Jeremiah secretly and asked his advice.  The advice was clear and unambiguous:  ‘If you will surrender to the princes of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live. 18 But if you do not surrender to the princes of the king of Babylon, then this city shall be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and you shall not escape from their hand (Jeremiah 38).’ Sadly, rather than heeding Jeremiah’s God-given advice, Zedekiah resisted the Babylonians claiming he was too fearful of the Jews in Babylonia. God’s promise of judgment for such disobedience would be soon realised. The Babylonian siege of Jerusalem began in 588 BC, despite a brief respite, 30 months later the city fell to the Babylonians. On the 18th July 586 BC, the city’s food supplies were exhausted (for a truly dreadful account of the impact of the impact of starvation, see Lamentations 2: 12 – children would  say to their mothers, ‘Where is bread and wine?’ as they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their lives ebb away in their mothers’ arms.’ And even worse in Lamentations 4: 9-10). As the Babylonians breached the city walls, Zedekiah made his escape and headed east to the hoped-for safety of the Jordan valley. Previously, God had warned Zedekiah that he would look into the eyes of Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 32: 4 and 34:3). Strangely, however, (and in an apparently contradictory statement) the prophet Ezekiel stated that the prince in Jerusalem (Zedekiah) would be taken to Babylon, where he would die, but he would not see Babylon. So, Zedekiah would see Nebuchadnezzar, would be taken as a prisoner to Babylon but would not see Babylon!  How could this be? Can we really trust what God says?

Zedekiah did escape from the doomed city of Jerusalem, but he and his escape party were soon captured and taken north to Riblah to meet Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar killed Zedekiah’s sons before his very eyes and then proceeded to put out Zedekiah’s eyes. Zedekiah was put in bronze shackles and taken to Babylon where he remained in prison to the day of his death (verses 10-11). When God speaks, his words do not fail. This is an encouragement to those who believe and a warning to those who do not.

2. The Destruction of Jerusalem

Jeremiah warned time after time that the people could only escape God’s judgment if they obeyed the words of the Lord. When they refused to obey, they were warned that the city of Jerusalem would come under God’s judgment through the agency of the Babylonians. The coming judgment was certain, but the people could escape with their lives if they surrendered to the Babylonians. Most did not. Looking back on this, it seems almost inconceivable that the people could refuse God’s clear warnings, warnings that were supported by incontrovertible evidence! And yet they did. Perhaps at times they felt that the strength of Egypt could help them resist the Babylonians, or perhaps agreeing a peace treaty with Babylon would permit their escape from the predicted destruction. They surely ought to have known better.

Once again, history tells us that God’s word (without the need for special interpretation by theological experts!) was realised. God says what he means and means what he says! The warning was clear, e.g. ‘ They (the Babylonians) will fight against it, take it and burn it down. And I will lay waste the towns of Judah so that no one can live there (Jeremiah 34: 22).’ With the city under Babylonian control, the Babylonians set about a programme of total destruction. Nebuzaradan, the commander of the imperial guard was in charge: on the tenth day of the fifth month i.e. the month of Av (15th August 586 BC) the temple, palace and important buildings were destroyed by fire. It is quite remarkable that more than 600 years later, the Jewish historian Josephus recorded the destruction of the second Temple in AD 70. Josephus records: “So Titus retired into the tower of Antonia, and resolved to storm the temple the next day, early in the morning, with his whole army, and to encamp round about the holy house. But as for that house, God had, for certain, long ago doomed it to the fire; and now that fatal day was come, according to the revolution of ages; it was the tenth day of the month Lous, [Ab,] (N.B. Ab is the Aramaic for the Hebrew Av, the 5th month of the Jewish calendar).The significance of the Temple being destroyed on precisely the same day (10th day of 5th month) in 588 BC and AD70 was not lost on Josephus: “it was the tenth day of the month Lous, [Ab,] upon which it was formerly burnt by the king of Babylon!”

Under Nebuzaradan’s orders the walls around Jerusalem were broken down and the city was destroyed. As for the temple, the huge bronze pillars and large bronze articles were broken up, and all the valuable (gold and bronze) utensils, bowls, pots and dishes were removed and taken to Babylon. How the Jews must have mourned this dreadful loss. See Jeremiah 52: 17-23 for a full account of all that was removed. God’s warnings became reality – when God speaks, his words do not fail.

3. Three Deportations to Babylon

Back in Jeremiah chapter 24 we read of one of Jeremiah’s object lessons. We enjoyed some delicious locally grown figs whilst on holiday in Turkey this year – they’re excellent at the moment! (late October) – but I believe the season is almost over. It was during the fig season that Jeremiah placed two baskets of figs before the temple: one was of good perfectly ripe figs and the other was of bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten. The good figs represented the obedient Jews who surrendered (as instructed by Jeremiah as he spoke for the Lord). Those who disobeyed and remained in the land would be “utterly destroyed from the land (Jeremiah 24)” It seems that these obedient Jews are mentioned in verses 29 to 30: 3,023 were taken into captivity in Nebuchadnezzar’s 7th year (598 BC), 832 in his 18th year (587 BC) and finally 745 in his 23rd year (582 BC). Interestingly 2 Kings 24 mentions 10,000 being taken into captive in the 8th year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign – perhaps these were not willing exiles, unlike those mentioned in this 52nd chapter of Jeremiah.

The lesson here is that once again, God’s word was realised for those who followed the advice to surrender to the Babylonians. These willing exiles would know God’s presence and would experience God’s promise that he ‘would set my eyes on them for good (Jeremiah 24:6).’

4. Release of Jehoiachin from prison

 The book of Jeremiah closes with a most unexpected story about Jehoiachin. You may recall that Jehoiachin was the son of Jehoiakim – he was the rightful heir to the throne of David, but the Babylonians replaced him with his uncle Zedekiah. Jehoiachin is described (2 Kings 24:8) thus: ‘ He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father had done.’ Not the best way to be remembered! Jehoiachin’s reign lasted only three months, so why end this great book with a mention of Jehoiachin?

What is important in Jehoiachin’s life is that he followed the advice of Jeremiah to surrender to the Babylonians: ‘10 At that time the officers of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon advanced on Jerusalem and laid siege to it, 11 and Nebuchadnezzar himself came up to the city while his officers were besieging it. 12 Jehoiachin king of Judah, his mother, his attendants, his nobles and his officials all surrendered to him.’ Jehoiachin, thus ended up as one of the exiles in Babylon and I think we may even say that he was amongst the good figs as he was obedient to the Lord’s instruction. So good for Jehoiachin!

There is a bigger story going on here, however. God spoke to King David several hundred years before the time of the brief reign of king Jehoiachin. David was informed that his house or dynasty would endure forever, and it becomes clear that God’s plan for a permanent reign through the Messiah would be realised through the continuity of the line of David. Jehoiachin was in that line. There was a significant danger that the royal line could come to an end if Jehoiachin did not survive his exile in Babylon. What is recorded in these final verses is a story of God’s faithfulness and his ability to deliver on his promises. It wasn’t all plain sailing: Jehoiachin spent no less than 37 years in a Babylonian prison. On his release, the Babylonian king however, treated him favourably, gave him a seat of honour, and provide for him from no less than the king’s table – Jehoiachin ate like a king! This must have been observed by some of the other Judean exiles who doubtless would have marvelled at God’s provision. This also gave them hope that God’s promises would yet be realised.

It turns out that Jehoiachin had a son, Shealtiel. Shealtiel also had a son, Zerubbabel. What is quite remarkable is that it was Zerubbabel was the man who laid the foundation for the second Temple in Jerusalem. The people would return, the city would be rebuilt, and the temple would be restored. This is a remarkable story of hope! The circumstances of Judah and Israel were utterly dire, Jeremiah had preached and remained faithful and yet his ministry ended in failure. But here is a glimmer of hope – God is faithful to his promises and nothing will prevail against him and his plans!

Here we are at the early part of the 21st century, we live in similar times to those of Jeremiah: almost 4,000 unborn children are killed in the UK every week, our children are taught that the most damaging of lifestyles are normal and are to be celebrated, our churches are empty and Christians are asleep, neither ready nor looking for the return of the king. Should we despair? Never! God’s plans will not and cannot be frustrated, we not only have a blessed hope we have a message of hope for this world. Let’s learn to be faithful to God’s word in our day, just as Jeremiah was in his day!